Calling Europe into Question: the British and the Greek referenda

On this day last year, Greeks woke up facing a referendum result that very few had expected. At issue was the bailout and austerity programme suggested by the country’s European and international creditors that the newly elected Syriza government rejected as too harsh. The ‚No‘ campaign ultimately exceeded all expectations by securing 61.31% against 38,69% of those saying ‚Yes‘. Europe stood speechless and in agony about what would come next. Seven days after the referendum, and facing the real prospect of Grexit, the Greek government reversed course, signing a bailout agreement that contained even stricter conditions than those rejected in the referendum.

Almost a year later, on the 24th of June 2016, British and other Europeans woke up overwhelmingly surprised by the ‘Leave’ vote. Again, a sense of disorientation and debility prevailed, shared both by the winning and the losing side, just like in Greece a year before.

Despite their significant differences, the one being a vote on EU membership and the other on bailout conditions and indirectly on the Eurozone, the Greek and the British referenda have some important things in common. Reading them together might have something to teach us about referenda on the EU —especially now that more people seem to be asking for one in their own country.

The most important connection seems to be the concept of democracy ultimately realized in both cases. David Cameron started his resignation speech with a tribute to the “giant democratic exercise” the British vote was, and Alexis Tsipras presented his own referendum as a “glorious page in European history”. Referenda are attractive. They keep something of the mystic aura of such revered moments of democratic history as Athenian assemblies and New England town meetings. In a world of mediated and indirect public decision-making, referenda are often seen as a rare moment of direct empowerment of the people ...

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